In every village of Rwanda, the Genocide against Tutsi had a conventional kick off incident, which unknown to many, was a sign of what to come.
In the context of Gashike-Ruhango district in former Ntongwe Commune of notorious Bourgmester Kagabo, the kick off was the shooting of one Viateur Karinijabo, a catholic church minister from a village called ‘i Rwanda’.
This was enough for Robert Muhoza Kayigi, then six years old, to understand that something wrong was going on.
Kayigi’s uncles and cousins who understood the warning even better started patrolling among relatives, to see whether all was fine, but this was only the beginning.
“Six uncles were quick to propose to my family of eight to cross over to my grandmother’s place in Mayunzwe, then in Tambwe Commune, currently Ruhango district,”
“They took the younger ones but my parents and elder brothers refused to go. I thought we were going for a normal visit as usual, but it was not,” Kayigi narrates.
The neighbours of the grandmother who used to show affection to the children this time were armed with all sorts of traditional weapons, and they quarrelled with the uncles.
“They argued until they told them: just go! We shall still kill you anyway!” Kayigi recalls.
At the grandmother’s, the extended family had gathered and children were placed inside the house with a warning: “stay indoors and please, try to stay quiet.”
The following morning, the same neighbours started looting nearby homes and at the same time pestering his grandmother to bring out every person in the house so they could kill them.
They were under the orders of one Murekambanze, a local leader whose prime targets were men.
When the hunt intensified, one Interahamwe militia was angry because they could not find men to kill. He turned his anger to a young woman who had a baby called Rusatsi on the back. He took the baby by force and hit him on a tree and killed him -another strong warning for Kayigi.
“Upset, I ran for my life to a neighbouring church-mu Kirokore. After settling in a hideout, I could see from the window a huge group of people bringing my uncle Musita and felt happy to see him. I did not know what was going to follow,” Kayigi says.
“Close to my window they brought my uncle and started hacking him with a machete. I would feel like I was the one being cut. I cried but a woman in the room grabbed me and squeezed me between her legs and warned: keep quiet!”
After this fatality, killers opened and headed to one room in the facility where they expected more targets. Those inside refused to open, which forced killers to go look for a grenade. It rained cats and dogs before they could manage to return.
Kayigi looked through the window and noticed that his uncle was immobile. His body was turning whitish but he couldn’t understand what exactly was going on.
“Pigs had started eating him. Pigs ate people during the Genocide,” he testifies.
“I attempted to go and check on him, but the woman I was hiding with in the house prevented me from doing so. It’s only after they went out to find a piece of cloth to cover him that I managed to escape back to my grandmother.”
He told the grandmother that his uncle Musita was laying down at ‘I Kirokore and urged her to go and check on him.
His grandmother had already figured out Musita’s fate and she told the young boy not to step out or risk being killed.
Kayigi could not eat anything because of the trauma from what he saw.
The following morning, he couldn’t help it but return to the area where his uncle was killed. He would spend the day there and return to his grandmother’s place in the evening. In the meantime, killings were soaring.
The grandmother realised that her family was being exterminated. She approached one Gaspard, a grassroots leader and requested him to hide the remaining members.
He agreed to hide only women and children. Kayigi joined them the following evening.
Sad death of an Auntie and her new born baby
It can only take psychologists to convince Kayigi that he had nothing to blame himself for over the death of his beloved aunt, one Theodeta.
Theodeta, who was expectant, came to hide in the ruins of Kayigi grandmother’s house which had been ransacked by Interahamwe.
The desperate old woman, who was visited by Interahamwe everyday, decided to hide Theodeta under a huge tree in the banana plantation.
“Keeping you in the house would be risky,” she advised.
One evening, the 6-year-old Kayigi returned to her grandmother’s place from Ikirokore only to find that near the expectant mother, Interahamwe had butchered a cow and shared the meat.
Dogs and pigs had gathered to eat the leftovers and when Kayigi saw them, he cried. They ran after him and his instinct told him to run towards the expectant mother.
“Little did I know the mother was giving birth. Dogs continued barking and I climbed the tree under which the aunt was and shortly, Interahamwe arrived and saw her. They tied her up and said “we will not kill you; the dogs will do the job.”
Indeed, the dogs and pigs ate her with the infant, a boy,” Kayigi recalls.
“Whenever I think of this case, I blame myself for having caused Interahamwe to see my aunt.”
After informing the poor grandmother about the incident, Kayigi ran for safety back to the same hiding place of her siblings and stayed there for nearly a week before Gaspard, the local leader who was hiding them, decided to hand them over to the killers.
There were nearly 20 people. He paraded them and someone warned Kayigi not to follow them and run to the grandmother’s place again.
‘Kibwa’, an angel sent from heaven
The last person he met at grandmother’s was a young boy that Kayigi could only identify as Kibwa. He was one of the relatives who also arrived to see what was going on the same evening Kayigi’s family was taken.
The two boys discussed possible ways to escape to Kabgayi. During the Genocide, many Tutsis fled to Kabgayi Diocese in current Muhanga district but unfortunately, it was not safe either.
In the morning, the boys decided to start the ambitious journey to Kabgayi, and half way, they saw a group of Interahamwe clad in banana leaves, hunting for the Tutsi.
Quick-thinking Kibwa who was barely three years older than Kayigi saw an old woman weeding her beans and told his companion: “Let’s join and help her.” They pretended to be with the old woman and the Interahamwe passed.
That very day, they were not able to make it to Kabgayi. They resumed their trip the following morning and when they reached the main road before crossing to the camp, they realised that only the fittest would survive.
“Interahamwe were killing dreadfully. Again, Kibwa quickly decided that we would make a soccer ball and we started playing. We pretended to be locals and crossed the road in disguise,” Kayigi recalls.
The following challenge was to enter the Kabgayi camp which required to have ‘clear and clean’ identity. A child would only enter if they were accompanied by parents.
As usual, Kibwa found a quick formula. They found children coming from fetching water, and asked them to help. They took their containers and entered with them with nobody suspecting.
Life was not easy in Kabgayi; diarrhoea, bullets and all kinds of misfortunes would kill someone any time. When Kayigi got sick, Kibwa got herbal remedies and treated him.
Parting Ways with Kibwa, joining the exodus to Zaïre
Kibwa was the guardian angel of Kayigi. When they felt too hungry, he advised them to look for work and a woman gave them domestic work at a Rwf 10 wage daily.
Time came and the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF Inkotanyi) besieged Kabgayi in a tense fight against Interahamwe. The Hutus that were at Kabgayi decided to flee, and the same lady who employed Kayigi and his companion wanted the two boys to carry her luggage and follow her.
Kibwa resisted but Kayigi wanted to follow.
“He told me please let’s stay because those shooting are Inkotanyi, our saviours. I did not listen to him and followed the woman. Some miles away, she boarded a car and sent me away helplessly,” Kayigi recalls
With nothing to do, he still followed the crowd wondering what his life would be without Kibwa.
On many occasions he narrowly escaped Interahamwe’s machete until he reached Gisenyi, Kabaya’s neighbourhood, the home to ex-President Juvénal Habyarimana under whom the Genocide was meticulously prepared.
A man found him struggling to cook food and rebuked the adults nearby who were eating nice food. Moments later he turned to Kayigi and asked him “where are your parents’ little boy?”
He made a mistake and said “my parents were killed.”
The man instantly swung his machete and Kayigi jumped off, ran to safety and sneaked into a crowd. An alert was raised and a search for ‘Inkotanyi’ was launched.
Kayigi found children who were going to fetch water and pretended to be one of them while Interahamwe continued to search for him.
The young boy found his way to a camp on the next hill and that is when he came to terms with his situation
One thing he understood from his previous ordeal was that mentioning that your relatives were killed was suicidal because it gave you away that you are either Tutsi or linked to ‘Inyenzi’.
As a little boy he didn’t understand the meaning of all this.
In the middle of it all, a woman asked: “Is there any child who lost their parents so I can take him?”
Kayigi did not believe his ears, but the lady insisted and he said “here I am!”
He introduced himself as ‘Muhoza’, the only name of his he could remember.
The woman took Kayigi home, and for the first time in several weeks, he enjoyed a ride escorted by soldiers, and afforded some sleep, food and a hot bath.
Fighting over Kayigi, Crossing into DRC(Zaïre)
Kayigi’s connection with this lady whose name he did not manage to know, largely opened a huge chapter in his life. It left strong memories because it involved several ups and downs, awful hate which lost battle in front of strong love.
From the well-to-do family, the father in the house invited his elder brother, and informed him: “We have got a young boy here who can help take care of your children. I will lend him to you, but take good care of him. He is quiet like my son.”
The mother in the second house identified only as Nyirabukara was particularly happy with this gift, and so was her husband and children.
Kayigi was relieved that for the first time he was going to enjoy some comfort, moving from glory to glory, while enjoying some affection. Both families were convinced that he was not Tutsi.
In the meantime, RPF continued to advance and soon they descended on Gisenyi. Kayigi’s ‘guardians’ had to flee to DRC, Zaïre at that time.
They packed only essential stuff and drove off to the western border.
Nyirabukara’s family crossed in the first cohort, but Kayigi found himself left with the first guardian. Two days later, as the family expected to also cross and board a plane to Kinshasa, a convoy of soldiers from Goma came for Kayigi.
“We have been sent by Nyirabukara to bring the boy,” they said.
A dispute broke out over the boy to the point that they almost shot each other, but the family gave up and allowed Kayigi to follow Nyirabukara’s emissaries.
Both families, who had relatives in DRC, fell in love with the young, charming and kind-hearted Kayigi.
Struggle in Masisi
In Goma, which was home to the biggest refugee camp of the 20th century-Mugunga, estimated to have over 500,000 Rwandan refugees, life was not easy. Kayigi and the host family were obliged to stay indoors for a couple of days.
“The air was really polluted and we were obliged to do everything in the house which was nearly impossible. A man in this family named Gakwavu came and advised us to relocate to his farm in Masisi. His land was as big as the southern province of Rwanda,” Kayigi narrates.
Gakwavu negotiated and Nyirabukara agreed to give Kayigi to her mother, “to just stay with her because she does not have anyone to call her own child at home.”
Kayigi joined Gakwavu’s mother, while Nyirabukara went to the other end of the farm “to take care of the domestic workers and make sure that the farm is safe.”
The family had hundreds of servants and 8000 cows among others. The children of the servants would grow and get married in the same land. It was more like a fief.
When Kayigi arrived at Gakwavu mother’s house, things changed.
“The old woman with links to Rwanda knew the Hutu and the Tutsi story. When she saw me, she said: You are ‘Tutsi!’ I denied because I knew the threat that would eventually follow. She insisted but I refused to accept. The lady started torturing me, making sure that the case was not reported to her son Gakwavu,” Kayigi said.
The old woman tasked two servants to put Kayigi on a beating regime, three times a day.
One day, after sustaining a serious beating, the lady tied Kayigi on a pit latrine to inhale the pungent smell for a couple of hours. A boy she had hired for the beating task was kind enough to release him.
Gakwavu, a businessman who would only come once in a while to visit the mother, did not know what was going on. He imagined the boy was being treated well like his own children would at their grandmas.
Kayigi himself had sworn that he could never confide in anyone about his plight out of respect for the lady.
Eventually the stories of torture reached Gakwavu’s wife and other family members and they were concerned but they treaded carefully because the old woman hadthe power to take someone’s life.
Kayigi found a tree near home where he would always go underneath to ‘talk’ to his mother.
“I would always go under the tree, close my eyes and feel the presence of my mother, then talk to her and feel relieved. Sometimes I would rebuke her for not saving me. My mother however would answer that she cared for me.”
One day, someone who had been observing Kayigi’s suffering decided to take him.
“A lady took me in a militia group, but half way, the voice of my mother ordered me to go back ‘home’ because I would die. I returned.,” he said.
Finding Love in Gakwavu’s household
As they say, the days of a thief are numbered; normally 40 days, they say. It means a thief can steal all they want and on the 40th attempt they are nabbed. In a larger context, the evil cannot dwell forever.
In Gakwavu’s family, they celebrated “umuganura”, where they would gather at his mother’s house to celebrate a good harvest. Daughters, sons, uncles and cousins, servants, neighbours and friends of the family would join Gakwavu, who often hosted a banquet.
That day the celebrations were supposed to take place, Gakwavu arrived with his wife, clad in white. Her mother was also dressed for the occasion -, quite like a queen mother.
Gakwavu asked to see Kayigi, but the mother responded that he was out playing with other children.
In reality, Kayigi was out looking after goats, which had become his daily chore. They proceeded with the banquet, and in the middle, something strange happened.
“As I was coming from the farms, I felt like the whole world was chasing me and was caught by strange fear. I ran and cried to the extent that it attracted everyone’s attention. They came to see.”
Gakwavu was among the first to respond and asked what was going on.
It was at this point that he found out that Kayigi was being treated as a servant. He was not amused and that marked the end of the party.
He poured down all the drinks meant for the feast and said that he could not stand a situation where his own son was a servant in his own family.
He rebuked all the people involved, calling them traitors and made a decree that there would be no more servants in his mother’s home. Gakwavu told his wife to “take the son home” and that was it.
“I was very happy to be in this family; Gakwavu loved me, his wife loved me even more,” says Kayigi.
The family proposed that Kayigi, who was now nearly ten, to either go to school or join Gakwavu in business. He chose business to the surprise of Gakwavu’s wife.
Gakwavu introduced Kayigi to business, and showed much trust in him.
Back to Rwanda on a daylight
Despite Gakwavu’s mother threatening Kayigi on several occasions for being Tutsi, she also had some grandchildren who were Tutsi because some of her daughters were married to Tutsi husbands.
After the Genocide, some of these children who had met Kayigi at his grandmother’s place came to Rwanda. In March 1999, they brought Kayigi news from Rwanda and encouraged him to repatriate.
“I didn’t know what being a Rwandan meant…I had forgotten Kinyarwanda. In brief, talking about Rwanda, the Genocide, the Tutsi, and other stories about our life in Rwanda was little known to me because I was young,” he said.
A niece of Gakwavu called Nyiramugisha returned in July, but Kayigi was still reluctant. It’s only in September 1999 when she managed to convince Kayigi.
“You are Rwandan who survived the Genocide against Tutsi and this is not your home. You don’t deserve to live this kind of life,” she told him.
Kayigi was convinced and they planned ways to repatriate. Initially he thought that his guardians would not allow him to return home, but love transcended everything.
“On one side I am sad, but on the other, I am glad you made a choice to return to your motherland,” responded Gakwavu’s wife, also known as Mama Aisha, when Kayigi announced his decision.
Gakwavu also reacted to the decision kindly.
“Hug me my son! I take you as my own son and would have loved to stay with you but a decision to return to your roots is noble.”
They gave him money for the trip, told him that he could come back any time and share with them any problems he faced and seek their help. Deep down, they did not want to see him go. Indeed, time to leave arrived, and early morning, Kayigi took his breakfast and left for Rubaya, then connected with the Rwandan team that had come for him at Mushaki.
Shock in Gashike, Kayigi’s home village
Kayigi transited to Nkamira repatriation camp in Gisenyi, then boarded a bus to Ruhango after three days.
From Ruhango, he boarded a bus to his home in Kinazi, Ntongwe, specifically at Gashike Primary school.
With money to pay for the service, he got a driver who was willing to take him up to Gashike Primary School, the only place he had in mind.
He arrived late evening, towards 8.30pm.
“I was very happy to return home. I didn’t know that my family was killed. I could not wait to hug my mother,” Kayigi narrates.
“I felt like the prodigal son in the bible.”
As he wondered if he could find his way home in the middle of the dark night, a supernatural power made a way for him.
“In our lives, there is power that does miracles. It is beyond us but there is. The road I followed, in a real sense, does not exist because after some time, I found myself in the middle of the bush,” he said.
At that moment he spoke to his mother: “Even you mom! How could you relocate without my knowledge? You thought I would not come back?”
The voice of the mother responded: “I didn’t leave you son.”
At that time, a cow mooed three times and attracted his attention.
“I found a beautiful street, just miraculously and it led me to a home.”
At this home, he was given the real story of his family. They made a long list of his relatives and said: “All of them had died.”
That is something he couldn’t easily understand. He only learnt that one of the sister Denyse and aunt Marnette survived the Genocide, together with their grandmother.
The following morning, Kayigi connected with his aunt and asked to go back to his grandmother’s place in Mayunzwe. There, he was shown the mass grave of his family members, ninety-six of them and he felt really down.
After learning all about the story, he joined his sister Denyse and moved to Kigali where started school against all odds.
He went through primary school, where he struggled to learn Kinyarwanda, and later joined secondary school.
In 2014, he graduated with a Bachelor degree in Economics and today, he is a very hopeful and optimistic man.
Kayigi connected with his old friend Kibwa, real name Munyawera Innocent, who on many occasions saved his life. He is now a police officer.
His grandmother died in 2004 after teaching Kayigi to forgive, a journey he embarked on ever since. Kayigi is very thankful to the country which gave him a chance to pursue his dreams, to study, to work and to compete with compatriots when there is an opportunity.
“I have nothing to blame my country for,” he said.